Alaska News Nightly: February 17, 2011

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Parnell Won’t Implement Federal Health Care Law
Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau
Governor Sean Parnell won’t implement any aspect of the federal health care overhaul in Alaska, citing a Florida judge’s decision calling the law unconstitutional.

Two other federal judges have upheld the law, and one in Virginia upheld all of it except the controversial provision requiring citizens to buy health insurance or face penalties. The issue will almost certainly be resolved by the United States Supreme Court. But Parnell told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce today that the Florida ruling is the law of the land for now, and Alaska is not going to participate in the overhaul.

“Alaska is a party to the Florida case with 26 other states. The judge gave us what we sought,” Parnell said.  “That is a declaration that the individual mandate is unconstitutional and the court barred implementation of the federal health care law. It’s pretty much that simple and Alaska is bound by that decision.”

That means he’ll skip a Friday deadline to apply for a million dollar federal grant to set up a state-run health insurance exchange giving individuals and small businesses access to information on insurance plans in Alaska. Parnell is the only governor in the country not to seek the grant, and the federal government is now likely set up an exchange for the state. But the governor says accepting the money would have come with federal strings attached.

“Alaska now swims freer of federal entanglement than these other states. These other states are now trying to figure out what to do with the oppressive constraints of money taken under an unconstitutional regime,” Parnell said.

State Senator Hollis French of Anchorage was one of seven lawmakers who wrote the governor this week urging him to accept the insurance exchange grant. French says the governor is wrong about the Florida ruling being the law of the land, and is harming Alaskans with his refusal to implement any part of the federal health care reform.

“It’s harmful to the 115,000 Alaskans who don’t have health insurance, and it’s harmful to those who do who were going to benefit from the many beneficial reforms that were in the Affordable Care Act,” French added.

Parnell says the state is pursuing other opportunities to improve health care for Alaskans, including an evaluation of health insurance exchanges by the state Division of Insurance. He’s also directed Commissioner of Health and Social Services Bill Streur to streamline enrollment in public assistance programs, and work with healthcare providers to better serve senior citizens and children.

French says the governor should propose legislation implementing his alternatives to the Affordable Care Act, rather than just talking about them.

Waterman Not-Guilty On Six Counts
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
Rachelle Waterman’s long wait for a verdict on murder and conspiracy charges is over. Today, an Anchorage jury found the Craig woman not guilty on six of the seven counts against her.

Alaska Will Keep Flight Subsidies
Libby Casey, APRN – Washington
The Essential Air Service Program that subsidizes flights to rural Alaska is safe – for now. Arizona Senator John McCain’s attempt to kill the program’s funding died in the Senate today. McCain’s amendment was tabled on a vote of 61 to 38.

He targeted the program as a way to save money, even though it would’ve meant losing funds for airports in his home state. The Essential Air Service program, or EAS, cost $200 million dollars last year and helped pay for airport service in about 150 communities throughout the country.

Alaska’s Congressional delegation has been fighting McCain because $12.5 million dollars of that went to 44 Alaskan communities.

McCain spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday and marveled at the reaction, especially of the Alaskan senators.

Senator Lisa Murkowski made her own comments on the Senate floor this week, and said she couldn’t weigh-in on what losing EAS would do to Lower 48 states like McCain’s, but that it could destabilize Alaskan communities.

Both Senator Murkowski and Democratic Senator Mark Begich showed their colleagues posters of Alaska and its vast size and limited road system. Begich in his floor speech warned losing ESA would put Alaskans out of work and isolate already distant villages.

McCain, however, says if Alaska feels that strongly, it should pay for the program itself. He pointed to a recent editorial by former Alaskan state legislator Andrew Halcro.

McCain criticized members of Congress who would vote down his amendment, saying it’s time to tackle the ballooning federal debt.

McCain floated his amendment as part of the Federal Aviation Administration re-authorization. Even though his attempt to kill the program stalled out, EAS isn’t necessarily safe. It will still be scrutinized as members of Congress look for ways to shave spending.

The President’s new proposed budget funds it at only slightly lower levels than last year. Over in the House, Congressman Don Young successfully got a provision through committee Wednesday continuing EAS only in Alaska and Hawaii while eliminating it in all other states.

Alyeska CEO: Low Volume Pipelines Biggest Problem
David Donaldson, APRN – Juneau
Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s new President Tom Barrett today told legislators that the biggest problem facing the TransAlaska Pipeline is the low volume of oil being shipped from the North Slope.

Designed to deliver up to two million barrels of oil per day, it is now carrying a little more than six hundred thousand barrels.

Barrett and members of his staff specifically addressed the most recent oil spill on the line that began January 8th.

Barrett, a former commander of the Coast Guard, says his Coast Guard experience has taught him to throw every tool available into responding to an emergency, and low oil flow is an emergency.

Betsy Haines, the Oil Movements Director for Alyeska, explained the effects of low volume in the line. She says TAPS was designed to handle warm oil and to carry that oil for shipment relatively quickly. But at current low flow rates, it is taking 15 days for oil to get from pump station one to the terminal at Valdez.

Barrett said the pipeline faces many risks in its daily operations – weather, environment, regulatory decisions. He says there are plans under way to prepare for them, but he refuses to gamble on them.
Barrett had been President of Alyeska one week when the January eighth oil spill occurred. He says the dedication of the company’s staff – their “grit” he called it – resolved further problems and got the line back in operation much quicker than originally anticipated.

Whaling Commission Seeks Subsistence Law
Jake Neher, KBRW – Barrow
The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission is calling on Alaska’s U.S. Congressional delegation to introduce subsistence whaling legislation before 2012. Officials say legislation is needed in case an international regulatory body fails to pass a harvest quota renewal. The AEWC passed this and four other resolutions Wednesday during the commission’s two-day Mini-Convention in Barrow.

Chokecherry Tree Causes Moose Deaths
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
The ornamental tree European bird cherry, or Chokecherry, is being blamed for the deaths of three moose in Anchorage this winter. The plant is not toxic to humans or most other animals but for ruminants such as cattle, deer and moose, the popular landscaping tree can be deadly. Dr. Kimberlee Beckman is a wildlife veterinarian for the state department of Fish and Game’s division of wildlife conservation. Beckman says chokecherry trees are not toxic all the time. Certain conditions in the fall create deadly compounds that turn in to cyanide gas in the rumen, the largest chamber in a moose’s stomach. She says the problem is not well studied and cases are rare. The 3 moose deaths this winter and one in 2006 are the only documented cases in moose.

She says it doesn’t take very long for the animal to die. Chewing the buds and tips of the branches breaks up the toxins and even small amounts can create cyanide that will kill the moose within 20 minutes. Beckman says in cases where cattle and deer have eaten toxic buds, they don’t make it more than 100 feet from the tree before dying. She says one of the moose deaths in Anchorage was from eating branches a homeowner had pruned in the fall and then stashed under a deck. The branches were tested and contained lethal amounts of cyanide compounds even though they had been trimmed months earlier. Beckman recommends mulching or disposing of such trimmings so moose scrounging for browse in late winter won’t be poisoned. She says the 3rd moose poisoned in Anchorage also had toxic levels of Japanese Yew, which is toxic all the time, to all animals and people.

The Yew plant is an evergreen with short needles. Beckman says chokecherry trees are an invasive that have quickly left back yards and are spreading at an alarming rate in Anchorage.

Beckman says another popular landscape plant that is very toxic is lilies. She says cats chewing the leaves or especially the bulb would die quickly.

Vibrant Aurora Show Expected
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
A solar flare event could result in a good aurora show tonight and Friday across the north, although cloud cover may keep us from seeing it. Chuck Deer an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute says the intense solar flare activity earlier this week was the largest in 4 years, a period during which the sun has been unusually quiet. Deer says the energy from the event takes a couple days to reach earth, but should fire up the aurora.

Deer says the northern lights will likely be brighter and visible from earth location much farther south than normal. Deer produces an online Alaska aurora forecast for the Geophysical Institute. It currently calls for active aurora. The spike in solar flare activity can also affect high frequency radio signals. Some commercial airliners have reported radio disruptions.

Sitka Loses Prominent Public Servant
Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka
Longtime Sitkan Roy Bailey died Saturday at the age of 84. Bailey served on the Sitka School Board, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tribal Council, the Historic Preservation Commission, and the board of the Sitka Historical Society. He also fought in World War II – a part of his life he didn’t publicly acknowledge, because for so long, the federal government didn’t acknowledge it either.